A Sit-Down with Senior Presidential Speechwriter Dan Cluchey ’08

Dan Cluchey ’08 is one of three Senior Presidential Speechwriters for President Joe Biden and a former speechwriter and advisor for the Obama administration. He graduated from Amherst College in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in political science with honors. Cluchey was elected by his class to serve as the student commencement speaker and was a recipient of the Densmore Berry Collins Prize for best honors thesis in political science. He earned a doctor of law degree from Harvard Law School, where he served as the 2012 Class Marshall. 

Q: How did you become interested in speechwriting? Did you think growing up that you were going to pursue a career in politics?

A: From a pretty early age, probably like high school-ish, I developed a real interest in politics and a consciousness about what was going on in the world. That was during the George W. Bush administration and the Iraq War. It was around that time that I started thinking about the [political] sphere as a place that I wanted to be a part of and contribute to. 

The concept of being a speechwriter isn’t really a job that a lot of young people consider, or even necessarily know about. They might know it exists, but are not sure how to get into it. That is why I realized my passion for it later on towards the end of college. At that point, I knew that I loved to write, and to write creatively. Speechwriting struck me as a way to marry those two things: progressive politics and creative writing. There are not a ton of jobs at the confluence of those two things, so after I found it, I did my homework and started from there.

Q: What did you major in at Amherst? Outside of academics, what activities were you involved in? 

A: I was a poli-sci [political science] major! Since I have graduated, the department has changed their requirements, but at the time it was really easy to complete the political science major. I’m fairly certain it was only nine credits and no comps. I was gung-ho about being a poli sci major, and pretty much only took political science classes my first two years. I finished my major requirement my sophomore year, and that’s when it hit me —  “you’re being an idiot, take some more interesting classes and diversify your education!” So I eased up after that, and took music classes, English classes, Russian literature and exposed myself to the breadth of courses offered at the college. 

Outside of class, I was super involved in Mr. Gad’s House of Improv. That activity was one of the most formative things that I did. It is the closest to my heart. I joined in my first year, and did it for all four years. I was in the DQ, which was a lot of fun as well, and I also had a couple of different terrible radio shows at various points.  

Q: How were you recruited to become a head speechwriter for President Biden?

A: I had been a speechwriter in the Obama administration for most of the second term. I wasn’t one of President Obama’s head speech writers or Vice President Biden’s key speech writers. I was in the tier below that, a few dozen speech writers who serve in the cabinet secretaries and work across the administration. 

I held a few different jobs in the Obama administration. Towards the end of the Obama Administration, I linked up with my wife, went to law school and we left D.C. for a few years. We took a step back from the whole orbit for a little while. My wife graduated law school and we decided to come back down to D.C. At that point, I was looking to get reconnected to the D.C. political and speech reading space. It happened around that time in the summer of 2018, that President Biden, who was a private citizen, was looking for a speechwriter to help him with domestic policy issues. The timing just lined up well, and I was able to jump on a great opportunity. I have been with him ever since.

Q: What does your day-to-day life look like as a presidential speechwriter? Who are your main points of contact in the White House?

A: There’s no typical day, I would say. It sounds like a cop-out, but it’s true! My schedule depends on what’s on the table on any given day. On the most basic level, there’s a team of three core speechwriters who serve the president. That number definitely undersells the number of people who are involved in the speechwriting process. There’s a senior advisor to the President, who guides the speech writing process and oversees it all. He determines the direction and does some writing himself in addition to the three speech writers. 

Every day you’re connected with, firstly, a lot of very, very smart policy folks. Depending on what you’re working on, they might be folks with great expertise in veteran affairs or racial equity or climate — whatever it is that you need knowledge on. We’re very fortunate to have incredible teams with incredible brains, who were able to connect with. Most of the speechwriting process is about gleaning knowledge from these folks within the administration. They help us learn about issues and our target audience. 

There are also our research teams, all of which inhabit the White House. They are called the Domestic Policy Council, the National Economic Council and the National Security Council. You see that the speechwriting process entails a lot of information gathering and then involves a big communications team as well. There are a ton of people that I am connected with throughout the process. Now, there is also a whole Covid team as well. 

Depending on the nature of the speech, the statement, the video that’s being recorded or the op-ed, you will be talking to any number of individuals. This pretty big group of people leads to lots of email chains!

Q: After you’re told that a speech is needed, what is the first step that is taken? What are the necessary steps that must be taken before the speech is delivered?

A: The first thing you do is call on the people who know the event — whomever is in the White House that is running point on the speech’s topic. These people will provide the really basic information. From there, lots of meetings and calls are conducted to talk about the speech’s anticipated audience, the venue and whether the President has a connection to what’s happening at the venue. 

We also have to learn about who else is speaking. This may impact his speech around the edges or lend some texture or color to it, particularly the stories of everyday Americans who are involved with this place, this event space and this community. 

After substantive information collection, we call on policy people who can tell us the latest facts and figures we will deploy. We then speak to the communications team and the senior staff, as well as advisors and people who will guide us in prioritizing our message. It’s a real team effort. 

Finally, the job of the speechwriter there comes a time to lock yourself in a small quiet room and just write. But mostly, a lot of the job is synthesizing information and priorities, facts and figures and figuring out the kind of story that needs to be told. All that happens in the first draft, essentially, and then there’s a whole iterative process after that of people weighing in. It’s like the iceberg metaphor — all lot more going on than you might anticipate. 

Q: What are the differences between preparing different writing pieces (an inauguration speech in comparison to a campaign speech, for example)?

A: What’s great about higher profile speeches is that they’re on the calendar. You know about inauguration day a long time in advance. You know about the Democratic Convention well in advance. With those, there’s more time — not just for me — but for everybody I mentioned [who is involved in the process] before. When you see them coming, you can be more thoughtful and “Aaron Sorkinish.” This enables you to define a story’s rhetoric.

The reality is, most speeches aren’t like that — they come on the calendar a little bit quicker. Oftentimes, speeches are a reaction to the news of the world. When news is unexpected, you have a short window to think through them and this accelerates the process. 

Q: How do you channel the President’s voice in your writing? Have you picked up any of President Biden’s linguistic mannerisms?

A: Definitely to the second question! I would say to the first that the whole job of a speechwriter, no matter who you’re writing for, is to embody a character and a voice that isn’t yours. It’s like fiction. Your goal is to completely subsume yourself into the speech-giver and and write through them. Essentially, you must erase or subjugate your own instincts and voice because you need to authentically speak through them. I like to think of myself as a novelist with an official character. 

The really nice thing about writing for the President, particularly for this president, is that he has been around for a while and he’s spoken on all sorts of subjects. I’ve written for other people who don’t have a defined public voice. That’s not the case with the president. People know what he sounds like and people know his stories. He’s got mannerisms like “I give you my word as a Biden,” or “not a joke, not a joke,” that people already know, and there are thousands of hours of video and thousands of pages of transcripts that make my life much easier. I feel confident embodying someone who’s that well documented and well defined. My goal is authenticity as a speechwriter, and understanding how he’s made certain arguments allows me to not necessarily recycle that material, but extrapolate from it.

Q: When you’re writing a speech, how do you anticipate which lines may be picked up as sound bites or applause lines?

A: I wouldn’t say that we have the best track record. The reality does not always line up with our expectations. Part of being a speechwriter, and it’s something that everyone on the team is attuned to, is how the news is consumed. There aren’t many people who will sit and watch another person speak on a subject for 20 minutes. Most people consume the news in a headline quote or soundbite, something that so you have to be attuned to. We do our best to anticipate it and make sure that the heart of the matter comes out in that soundbite, but it’s not always predictable.

Q: Throughout his presidential term, President Obama stressed the importance of addressing cynicism. How do you avoid becoming cynical, working in contemporary politics?

A: Working in contemporary politics has made me less cynical, which is heartening. In my experience, the further away I was from the center of it all, the more cynical I was. Working with this team, around the President, and I don’t mean this to sound sappy, makes me less cynical because I see what truly motivates people. And a lot of people in D.C. are because something drove them to be there — to make life easier for folks, and to make life better for folks. Maybe that doesn’t always come out in everything that happens in Washington, but the more time I spend in Washington, the higher opinion I have of those who work in politics.  

By no means is it always easy, but sometimes you get a win. Like today, the American Rescue Plan is on the brink of passing, and I’m thinking about how this bill is projected to cut child poverty in half in America. This one piece of legislation is enough to curb cynicism. 

Q: What makes a speech great? 

A: Different speech writers will have different answers to this, but I think it’s great if it gets the job done. Every speech is different: It could be to motivate people, it could be to educate people, it could be to call people to action. I think that if it accomplishes its goal, that’s the prerequisite to being a great speech, but it’s not the whole picture. There’s still an English department component of. Greatness lies in whether the speech resonated and rose above the words on the page. For me that comes through the music of the prose and its delivery. A large part is also the narrative thread that floats throughout the whole way and ties the speech together. This is what makes it more than just a collection of interesting or well-written lines. That’s all sort of nebulous, but those are the key ingredients.

Q: Do you still think about your time at Amherst?

A: I think about Amherst every day — I’m, like, the biggest Amherst booster. It’s where I met my wife and we got married on campus. We’ve never detached from Amherst. I think about it every day in that sense, because it shaped and continues to shape me so much. My closest friends are my friends from college. 

I would also say that the political atmosphere shaped me as well. It’s hard to sort of parse the influence of college because people change so much during those four years. I’d like to think that the values that shape me emerged from my professors. The professors and courses that I took influenced my writing on a practical level and had a profound impact on me as a writer. When I call professors to mind, the memories rein me in as a writer. Not only specific classes, but also the atmosphere of Amherst has infused me with greater empathy and got into my soul. I come from a pretty small town in Maine, and so college was a wholly new experience for me.

Q: Outside of your work, what do you do during these Covid times for fun?

A: My wife and I are committed to our dog. We do as much hiking as we can (there isn’t a whole lot of nature around D.C.) but we do as much as we can with our dog. We keep in touch with friends. Other than that, work is pretty consuming. We’re very lucky that our literal next door neighbor is a friend from Amherst and so we do Zoom trivia every couple of weeks. But we’re definitely ready for the pandemic to be over, particularly as the weather gets a little nice. Obviously we’re ready for it to be over for greater, main reasons but we also miss the outdoors as well.